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Supreme Court Upholds Fair Housing Act Discrimination Claims

Posted by Jamison Mark on Jun 25, 2015 2:46:34 PM


The Supreme Court ruled today on a case interpreting the national Fair Housing Act (FHA).[1] Although some states and localities have their own additional protections, today’s Supreme Court ruling strengthens the protection of the FHA to protect renters, tenants, and homebuyers across the country from discrimination.


What is the Fair Housing Act?

The FHA, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person's inclusion in a protected class. Protected classes are based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, age (40 and over), sex, pregnancy or family status, citizenship status, disability, veteran status, or genetic information (i.e., genetic predisposition to developing a disease).

The FHA outlaws:

  • Refusing to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his or her protected status.
  • Discriminating against anyone based on their protected characteristics in the terms, conditions or privilege of the sale or rental of a dwelling. 

For example, a landlord must make an exception to a “no dogs” policy for a blind tenant with a seeing eye dog

  • Advertising the sale or rental of a dwelling indicating preference of discrimination based on a protected characteristic.
  • Coercing, threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a person's enjoyment or exercise of housing rights based on discriminatory reasons or retaliating against a person or organization that aids or encourages the exercise or enjoyment of fair housing rights.

What does today’s Supreme Court ruling mean? 

The Supreme Court ruled that the FHA covers housing-related actions that have a discriminatory result—known as disparate impact—even if they weren’t intentionally discriminatory.

In the case before them, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Community Project, Inc., a Texas non-profit (The Inclusive Communities Project) claimed that the state housing authority was only approving tax credits for low-income housing in heavily African-American neighborhoods of Dallas, while denying tax credits in white neighborhoods.  Although it seems beneficial, the group argued that this practice was having the discriminatory result of prolonging the city’s racial segregation by making it harder for poor African-Americans to move into economically better (and whiter) neighborhoods.

Texas claimed that it didn’t intend any discrimination and therefore couldn’t have violated the FHA – which doesn’t explicitly set forth whether the discrimination needs to be intentional to be prohibited. The district court that heard the case and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had both ruled that the FHA does implicitly prohibit disparate impact claims, and the State of Texas appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision agrees with every other appeals court that has ruled on the question so far. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, noting that “Recognition of disparate-impact claims is consistent with the FHA’s central purpose,” although he cautioned that its application should be limited to egregious cases. He explained that disparate impact cases brought under the FHA have played a key role in promoting racial equality in housing and fighting discrimination:

[S]ince the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and against the backdrop of disparate-impact liability in nearly every jurisdiction, many cities have become more diverse,” Kennedy wrote. “The FHA must play an important part in avoiding the Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that ‘[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.’ … The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society.

Today’s ruling is part of an overall push by the federal government to support the FHA and attempt to reduce neighborhood economic disparity of the kind that has contributed to violence and instability in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. In fact, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently issued stronger guidelines on how to further fair housing policies under the FHA, including affirming the role of disparate impact lawsuits.[2]

Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer voted with the majority. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented, claiming that “disparate impact” lawsuits exceed the intended scope of the FHA.


If you think you have been a discrimination victim or subjected to unlawful treatment in the rental or sale of your housing, the experienced New Jersey attorneys at The Mark Law Firm can help! We can evaluate whether you have a New Jersey race discrimination lawsuit, religious discrimination lawsuit, disability discrimination or other kind of lawsuit based on unlawful treament under the FHA, New Jersey discrimination laws or local anti-discrimination laws related to housing.

We have offices in River Dell, Newark, and Basking Ridge; discrimination claims are evaluated by our team of experienced attorneys. Contact us today by clicking the link below.

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Topics: Discrimination & Harassment

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